If anybody feels tempted to dismiss science fiction as an irrelevant genre – all ray guns and little green men – then they should speak to Margaret Atwood, the Booker Prize-winning author of the dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003). Sci-fi, says Atwood, “is always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have”. Given science fiction’s ability to speak to contemporary concerns, it’s perhaps unsurprising that an increasing number of artists now work within – and expand upon – its conventions, employing it as a pop cultural lingua franca that, in the age of the billion-dollar grossing Hollywood space opera, has a truly global reach.
While scholars often identify the earliest example of sci-fi as Lucian of Samosata’s second century AD novel A True Story (which featured space travel, alien encounters, and interplanetary warfare), it is in the late 19th century, when writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells yoked speculative narratives to emergent technologies, that the genre as we know it was truly born. The six artists showcased here are heirs to that tradition, although like their Victorian-era predecessors, their works hold a mirror up to their own times. From Afrofuturism to fan culture, from artificial intelligence to conspiracy theories, from utopian urban planning to the ‘alien’ nature of our own home planet, this is art that has one eye on tomorrow, and the other firmly on today.
In his linocut Keeping the Culture (2011), the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall – who received the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ in 1997 – reimagines the interstellar ark through the lens of Afrofuturism, a branch of sci-fi that explores the intersection of African diaspora culture and advanced technology. Here, a Black family relaxes in their living quarters aboard a starship, a room in which a holographic display terminal shares space with ancient artifacts, among them a wooden figure of the type produced by the Fang people of Central Africa. Outside the ship’s window, comets blaze by, and glittering new galaxies beckon. We’re invited to speculate what past this family has escaped, and what future they – and the cultural legacy they carry with them – are speeding towards.
The Romans named it after their god of war. David Bowie wondered in song whether it might support life. Elon Musk plans to land astronauts on its surface by 2024. Save for the Earth itself, no other planet in our solar system has preoccupied the human imagination more than Mars, which features in countless sci-fi tales, from H.G. Wells’ seminal novel The War of the Worlds (1898) to Ridley Scott’s blockbuster movie The Martian (2015). As the cosmologist Carl Sagan has observed, the red planet “has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”.
While the landscape in the leading American artist Matt Mullican’s print Try and Beat This, Mars blushes a deep red, this is not the surface of an alien world. Rather, it is stretch of unidentified, scrubby desert on our own home planet, Earth, photographed in the 1930s for National Geographic magazine. Mullican – whose work has been exhibited at major museums including MoMA, New York, and MoCA, Los Angeles – has said that he appropriated this image to show “how beautiful and strange the earthly landscape is […] It’s really strange that ANYTHING exists. NOTHING SHOULD EXIST”. Contemplating this print, we get to thinking about our world’s apparent cosmic loneliness, about how extraordinary – and how tragic – it is that of all the planets in the universe, the Earth is the only one we know of where the flame of life burns bright.
Since its early days, science fiction and its related genres have attracted an intense fanbase, although unlike, say, sports enthusiasts, these fans were for many years a marginal and much-maligned group. Today, when post-apocalyptic dramas such as The Hunger Games, superhero narratives such as the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, and cod-medieval fantasies such as Game of Thrones dominate our screens, things feel very different. Pop culture is now, in no small part, synonymous with nerd culture – the geeks have inherited the Earth. Nothing has contributed more to this than the mainstream success of the Star Wars franchise, or more precisely the fact that while the kids who loved the original movies in the late 1970s and 80s grew up, many of them were unwilling, or unable, to leave the space opera behind.
The noted American artist Slater Bradley’s photograph Uncharted Settlements 2005/2010 captures a group of adult Star Wars fans at a sci-fi convention, where dressing up (or ‘cosplaying’) as characters from the franchise is a popular pursuit. Wearing screen-accurate replica costumes of the movies’ evil Imperial forces, they present an intimidating spectacle, until we remember that they are not a phalanx of intergalactic fascists, but rather off-duty accountants, IT workers, and suburban moms and dads. Looking at this work, we might wonder whether their meticulous homemade uniforms speak of creativity or conformity, the colonization of their imaginations by the entertainment-industrial complex. By placing such high value on realism, have they forgotten one of the most joyous – even transcendent – aspects of childhood play, the ability to make-believe?
For his Zeitungsfoto (1981-1991) series, the lauded German photographer Thomas Ruff selected some 2500 images from daily newspapers over a span of ten years, re-photographing and enlarging them without the original accompanying text. In the absence of headlines, captions, or reportage, we’re left to infer the story behind the image. Did, say, a shot of a passenger plane once illustrate a news piece on an airline buyout, or an aviation disaster? If context is everything, then what, exactly, remains when it is removed?
Zeitungsfoto 223 presents us with an image of a pair of crop circles. Of disputed origin, these geometric patterns created from flattened fields of cereals were noted as early as the 17th century, although examples of this phenomena increased exponentially in the post-war period – a time, perhaps not coincidently, which also saw a surge of public and media interest in the possible existence of UFOs. Ruff does not give us his personal take on whether these circles are (as many people claim) the work of aliens, sending some urgent, unintelligible message to our species, or of a band of skillful pranksters, preying on the gullibility of their fellow humans. He merely presents us with the visual evidence, allowing us to provide our own commentary according to our own truth, however cynical or conspiracy-minded that truth may be.
Celebrated as a forefather of Pop, the work of the Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi was steeped both in art history, and in the technological advances that shaped the postwar period – a time in which the jet age gave way to the space age, and in which science fiction was becoming science fact. Deeply attuned to the psychological effects of this profound (and still ongoing) cultural shift, he compared the products of the “technological world” to “the fetishes of a Congo witch-doctor”. For the artist, both were “significant images”, which we imbue with a meaning that goes far beyond the rational.
By the time Paolozzi made his screen-print No Heroes Developed from General Dynamic F.U.N. in 1970, the robot it features already looked like a relic, resembling as it does a prop from a 1950s space serial. And yet, it is precisely this anachronism – this vision of a past potential future – that gives the work its uncanny charge. The creation of artificial humans is an ancient notion: think of the Greek myth of Pygmalion and his living statue Galatea, or Jewish folkloric accounts of the golem, an anthropomorphic being formed from clay. Paolozzi presents his robot as merely a more recent (and now superseded) iteration of this fantasy, the fulfilment of which draws ever closer with each passing year.
In the print Biosphere 3, we see a cluster of huge geometric bubbles glide serenely through the upper atmosphere, their transparent membranes containing what appear to be whole lakes and forests. Looking at this work, it’s hard not to experience wonder, even perhaps hope, but are Saraceno’s Cloud Cities anything more than a daydream? The artist’s research into realizing his utopia has led him to patent an Aerogel skin for lighter than air vehicles, which might potentially be used to create large-scale, habitable structures. For now, we remain grounded, but perhaps someday we will be citizens of the skies.